Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

We caught some breaks (thanks for the backdoor Illinois) and posted our best week of the year. Let's follow that up with another winning week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall 47-37

San Jose State +7.5 Fresno State
The Spartans and Bulldogs enter this game off an unusual late season bye. Since both teams played in Week Zero, it was actually the second bye week for each, so neither team should come in with a rest advantage. In addition, despite differing records, both teams still have a lot to play for. Fresno State can win the West division if they beat San Jose State and San Diego State loses to Boise on Black Friday. Meanwhile, San Jose State needs a victory to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season. That would be quite an accomplishment for a program that has played in back to back bowl games just once in school history. The Spartans have struggled offensively after their championship winning 2020 campaign, but they still play good defense, having held all eleven of their 2021 opponents below six yards per play. In fact, they have done so in their last twenty games since the penultimate game of the 2019 season! They gave up 48 points in their last outing, but that was mostly due to Utah State's excellent starting field position. The Aggies returned an interception for a touchdown and had two touchdown drives under ten yards and a third that began in plus territory. If the Spartans don't offer up room service turnovers, Fresno State should struggle to score. San Jose State is 8-5-1 ATS as a home underdog under Brent Brennan, and are 7-2-1 when catching at least a touchdown as they are here. Bowl eligibility is a big deal, so I don't expect motivation to be an issue despite the fact the other side is arguably playing for more (a potential conference title). Take the Spartans to keep this one close. 

Boise State -2.5 San Diego State
This game kicks off at 9 AM local time on Black Friday. While the players may be a little drowsy from the tryptophan, this game will be televised by regular CBS, so the two of the better teams in the Mountain West will be getting national exposure. This game means a great deal to both teams as San Diego State will clinch a spot in the Mountain West Championship Game with a win (they could also make it with a loss pending the results of the Fresno State game on Thanksgiving) while Boise will keep their division title hopes alive with a win. The Broncos have four regular season losses for the first time since 2015, but have won four in a row in dominant fashion (outscored last four opponents by more than twenty points per game). They have also been better away from the Smurf Turf, posting a 4-1 straight up and (5-0 ATS) record on the road with the lone defeat coming in the opener against a UCF team at full strength. Meanwhile, San Diego State has punted and clawed their way to ten wins, with six of the victories (including the last five) all coming by a touchdown or less. Their defense is one of the best in the Mountain West, but the offense is the worst on a per play basis outside of New Mexico. I've been rooting for the Aztecs and their unaesthetic style all season, but I think they will struggle to keep up with a Boise State team that is rounding into form. 

Miami (Ohio) +1 Kent State
These in-state rivals did not play last season due to Covid. It marked the first season they did not play since the FBS formation of the MAC in 1962. So they are probably chomping at the bit to get a piece of each other. Oh, and lest I forget, this game will also decide the MAC East. And considering a very flawed Northern Illinois team has won the West, the winner of this game will probably be favored at the MAC Championship Game next week at Ford Field. While Kent State is favored by the bookmakers, I rate Miami as the better team. Both teams have prolific offenses, with Kent State having scored 32 offensive touchdowns in seven MAC games. Miami is not far behind, having scored 28 offensive touchdowns in their seven league games. However, on defense, there is no comparison. Miami has allowed 16 offensive touchdowns in MAC play while Kent State has allowed more than double that amount (33). The Golden Flashes play fast, so there should be possessions aplenty in this game. More possessions mean the better team has more opportunities to assert their dominance. In this instance, that team appears to be Miami. In addition, Miami has played well as a road underdog under Chuck Martin, posting a 14-8 ATS record in the role in MAC play. Those numbers also include nine outright wins by the Redhawks. I think the same thing happens here. Miami should win the game and take the division crown. 

Wyoming -10 Hawaii
The Cowboys experienced one of the weirder college football seasons in 2021. They opened the year needing a late comeback to beat FCS Montana State. Then, after scoring just 19 points against the Bobcats, their offense exploded for 95 points in the next two games (the third best two game point total of the Craig Bohl era). Then they went on the road and barely beat Connecticut. Despite the close call with the Huskies, the Cowboys entered Mountain West play with a 4-0 record. They proceeded to drop their first three conference games while scoring a combined 17 points. The Cowboys then changed starting quarterbacks, going from the inaccurate Sean Chambers to the slightly more accurate (but still kind of inaccurate) Levi Williams. The Cowboys have split the four games with Williams as starting quarterback, but the offense has improved significantly. After averaging 5.7 points per game and 4.26 yards per play in their first three conference games, the Cowboys have averaged 27.3 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in their past four. I believe that offense is much more indicative of what we will see on Saturday, especially against a Hawaii defense that is the second worst in the conference in yards allowed per play. In addition, this is Hawaii's seventh consecutive travel weekend. They have alternated home and road games since a bye in early October. 
After upsetting Colorado State last week, I think the Warriors are out of gas and will lay down in this spot. Plus the trends also point to an easy Wyoming win. The Cowboys are 10-4 ATS as a home favorite under Bohl while the Warriors are 1-6 ATS as a road underdog under Todd Graham. Take the Cowboys to win easily. 

Western Kentucky +1 Marshall
Last week's marque Conference USA game was confined to ESPN+ (and ended up being one of the best games of the weekend). At least this week, the game will be on cable as CBS College Sports gets this battle for the East division crown in Conference USA. Since Western Kentucky joined Conference USA in 2014, the Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd have both won two East division crowns (FAU also has two), so this will break the tie. The series has also been pretty competitive with Marshall winning four of the seven contests outright (the past four), but only covering once (last year). Western Kentucky is actually 2-2 in Huntington (covering all four times), which includes an instant classic from their first meeting in 2014. Obviously, those games from several years ago will have little impact on this one, but it does show that a victory by Western Kentucky would not be the most shocking result of the weekend. That is especially true when you note how well the Hilltoppers have played since they began the season 1-4. Two of those losses were to teams currently ranked in the AP Poll, another was a tight home loss to a Power Five team, and the fourth was on the road against a service academy. Since that 1-4 start, the Hilltoppers have averaged 44 points per game and their defense that was a liability in the early going, has allowed under twenty points per game. Granted the competition has not been strong, but that is what you get in Conference USA, arguably the weakest FBS conference. Marshall has handled their business against the dregs of Conference USA as well, winning their five conference contests by an average of 22 points per game. However, they also dropped a home game to the best Conference USA team they have faced thus far (UAB), so don't be afraid to back a road team in Huntington. Western Kentucky will score a lot and their defense has improved enough to get the stops needed to win this game. 

Penn State -1 Michigan State
Ohio State peeled back the curtain last week and exposed Michigan State for a fraud. The Spartans entered with one loss, but probably should have had two or three more (Nebraska, Indiana, and Michigan) if not for some non-offensive scores and questionable officiating. The great start made Mel Tucker a hot commodity. His bank account is certainly better for it, but we'll see how happy Michigan State is in a few years when they realize they broke the back for a coach with a 7-12 overall record heading into 2021. James Franklin also added some money to his coffers, but at least he is the proud owner of a Big 10 title (not to mention unprecedented success at Vanderbilt). But I digress. After a hot start, Penn State has lost four of their past six games. But lets look at the teams that beat Penn State. Every team that has beaten Penn State this season either plays pretty good defense (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State) or is one of the best teams in the country (Michigan and Ohio State). I can hear the Michigan State fans now. But we beat...Yes, you did beat Michigan. That is one of eleven data points for both teams. The other ten all point to Michigan being the superior team. And in case you missed last week's game, Michigan State is not very good at defense. There are four Big 10 teams with a worse per play defense in (Big 10 games) than the Spartans. Those teams are Maryland, Northwestern, Purdue, and Rutgers. Meanwhile, Penn State has the second best per play defense in the Big 10 (Wisconsin). I think they shut down the explosive Michigan State run game and leave East Lansing with a win. 

California +7 UCLA
College football fans were a little too eager to jump on the UCLA bandwagon this year. The Bruins were better than their record a year ago, having posted a 3-4 record with the four defeats coming by a combined fifteen points. When they opened 2021 by blowing out Hawaii and upsetting LSU, we figured they were back. Well, about that. It's great that UCLA has clinched a winning record for the first time under Chip Kelly, but take a look at who those wins have come against. I'll wait. 
The best team they have beaten is either LSU or Southern Cal. Their other Pac-12 victories (and Hawaii) have all come against bad teams. Give the Bruins credit for winning those games (something they hadn't done in Kelly's first three seasons), but is this a team you really want to lay a touchdown with? The defense is still below average (we'll be kind and not call them bad) and the Bruins have a history of losing home games they were supposed to win under Kelly. The Bruins are 4-9 ATS as a home favorite and have lost outright seven times (three times this season)! Meanwhile, Cal still has the stench of their Covid aided loss to Arizona hovering around the team. However, even with that loss factored in, the Bears have been better than the Bruins on a per play basis in the Pac-12. Cal has outgained their conference foes by more than a yard per play while UCLA is barely above water in that statistic. In addition, Cal has been superb as a road underdog under Justin Wilcox, posting a 14-4 ATS record with seven outright wins. With their rescheduled game with Southern Cal on deck next week, Cal still has a shot at getting to a bowl game, so they should be motivated against their more hyped ursine rivals. Take Cal to cover and potentially win the game outright.  

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Finally, we returned to our wining ways. Let's close the season strong. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall 41-36

Western Kentucky -10 Florida Atlantic
When it comes to making picks, I am pretty averse to laying double digits. However, in this instance, I can't figure out why this line is not at least two touchdowns. Western Kentucky has quietly won five in a row after a 1-4 start and has scored at least 42 points in five of their six conference games (they only managed 34 in the other). The offense, particularly the passing side, is fantastic. Bailey Zappe has thrown 42 touchdown passes and Jerreth Sterns has an absurd 111 catches. The defense is nothing special, but should be able to get stops against an FAU offense that has not shown up against good teams on the road. The Owls put 38 on the board against a very bad Charlotte defense, but in their other four road games (Florida, Air Force, UAB, and Old Dominion), they have averaged under 13 points per game. For the season, they have decent per play offensive numbers in Conference USA, but that is heavily influenced by games against the aforementioned Charlotte and FIU (winless against FBS foes). In those two games, the Owls averaged a robust 8.98 yards per play and scored 96 points. In their other four conference games, they averaged 4.81 yards per play and scored 71 total points. Even with a good defensive showing, Western Kentucky is getting to thirty. Can FAU get to twenty to cover? I don't think so. This one has blowout written all over it.   

Boston College -1.5 Florida State
It is dangerous to oversimplify things, but I think in this case, it really is that simple. Without quarterback Phil Jurkovec, Boston College is one of the worst ACC teams this side of Duke. In four league games without their starting quarterback, the Eagles scored forty total points and four offensive touchdowns. In two conference games since Jurkovec returned from injury, the Eagles have scored 58 points and seven offensive touchdowns. I don't think this line is fully accounting for what the Eagles are with Jurkovec taking snaps. Jurkovec does not play defense and the Eagles have certainly had their issues on that side of the ball (fifth worst per play defense in ACC play), but their offense is good enough to win a shootout. Florida State is 1-6 straight up on the road under Mike Norvell and has covered as a road underdog just two times in those seven games. In fact, this represents the smallest road spread they have faced under Norvell. They have typically been catching double digits (five times). If Boston College wins, they should cover this small number.  

Illinois +12.5 Iowa
Don't look now, but Bret Bielema has quietly built a quality defense in Champaign. After fielding very bad defenses during his final few seasons at Arkansas (his last two teams both allowed more than 30 points per game), Bielema selected Ryan Walters to be his defensive coordinator. Not only has Walters coordinated a better than average Big 10 defense, his former employer (Missouri) has fallen off a cliff defensively since he left. The Illini allowed 101 points in their first three games, but following the loss at Virginia where they allowed 42 points to the Cavaliers, the Illini have stiffened. They have allowed 115 points in their past seven games and have held six of those seven opponents to twenty points or fewer (only Wisconsin eclipsed twenty).Couple that solid defense with a struggling Iowa offense and you have a recipe for a low scoring affair. The oddsmakers agree, setting the over/under at 38.5. With an over/under that low, it will be hard for Iowa to get margin. The over/under implies a score of about 25-13 and I don't think Iowa will be able to do their part. If Illinois can get to ten points, they should cover this number.  

Virginia +14.5 Pittsburgh
Is Pittsburgh the best team in the ACC? Probably. Does that mean I trust them in any way to cover a big number in a conference game? Absolutely not. While the Panthers are statistically speaking, the best team in the ACC, not all best teams are created equal. To quote Dave Matthews, they are the best of what's around. They are not in the same class as the past few Clemson teams and should not be treated as such by the oddsmakers. Remember, this team has already lost twice at home as a large favorite, including once to a MAC team. Virginia has a bad defense and scored just three points in a showcase home loss to Notre Dame last week, but they were without quarterback Brennan Armstrong. His status for this game is still up in the air, but I think the Cavaliers held him out last week since it was not a conference game. Despite four total losses, Virginia has only lost twice in the ACC and can actually get to the ACC Championship Game if they win their final two against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh has struggled as a home favorite under Pat Narduzzi, posting a 7-10-1 ATS record in ACC play and they have never covered as a double digit home conference favorite (0-3). Take the Cavaliers to keep this one close and don't be surprised if the ACC Wheel of Destiny makes an appearance Saturday afternoon. 

The battle of acronyms in Conference USA will most likely decide the west division. A UTSA win will clinch the division for the Roadrunners while a victory by UAB will put the Blazers in position to win their fourth consecutive division crown if they can also beat UTEP in an acronym under card next week. Unfortunately for Conference USA, this marquee game will be given the ESPN+ treatment. The conference's television deal is a disaster (last week's marquee game between UAB and Marshall was at least on CBS Sports Network) which is probably why it is being held together with duct tape and rubber bands. But I digress. If you happen to have an ESPN+ subscription or know someone who does, tune in. UTSA is ranked, but UAB has been better on a per play basis (in conference play). The Blazers have allowed under four yards per play to their conference opponents this season and have been great as a road underdog under Bill Clark. Against fellow Group of Five opponents, the Blazers are 10-3 ATS with nine outright victories! UTSA has had a dream season, but I think UAB is in position to upset the Roadrunners and seize control of the division race.  

Louisiana-Lafayette +4.5 Liberty
Liberty is 7-3 this season after posting a 10-1 record and top twenty finish in the AP Poll last season. Hugh Freeze is doing a great job of using the Flames as a stepping stone to get back to the SEC. Grift recognize grift. However, the Flames have built their solid 2021 record on a weak schedule. Using ESPN's FPI as a metric to rate teams, Louisiana-Lafayette is the second best team the Flames will have faced this season. 
They have beaten up on bad Conference USA and Sun Belt teams. The Flames were legitimately impressive last season, beating two ACC teams on the road and nearly beating a third before upsetting unbeaten Coastal in the Cure Bowl. The Flames do have a somewhat impressive road win against UAB, but otherwise their victories have been lackluster, and they somehow lost to Louisiana-Monroe as a massive favorite. The culprit for their decline is the offensive line which has allowed 38 sacks this season. Only five teams have allowed more. Louisiana-Lafayette isn't great at rushing the passer, but they do have 26 sacks on the season (tied for 34th nationally). They should get to Malik Willis a few times and stall out some Liberty drives. Plus, while the Ragin' Cajuns already have their half of the Sun Belt locked up for the fourth straight year, Billy Napier is also auditioning for bigger jobs, so they should be motivated to win this late season non-conference game and maintain their national ranking. Under Napier, the Ragin' Cajuns are 5-1-1 ATS as a road underdog against Group of Five teams with three outright wins. I think they get their fourth in Lynchburg. 

Cal-1.5 Stanford
Why is this line so low? I think Cal should be favored by at least a field goal despite travelling to Stanford for The Big Game. The rivals managed to squeeze the game in last season despite the abbreviated schedule. Cal lost a heartbreaker thanks to a missed extra point. The Bears head into this game off an embarrassing loss to Arizona and a Covid-related postponement against Southern Cal. The loss to Arizona, while embarrassing, can be mostly blamed on Covid. The Bears were missing a lot of their roster and Arizona still had to sweat out a win at home. Most of those players are expected to be back this week, so if Cal is at full strength, or at least a partial approximation of it, they should handle Stanford. The Cardinal somehow managed to take down Oregon almost two months ago, but have not won since, dropping five straight. Their defense has been particularly ghastly in the losing streak, allowing nearly 34 points per game and 6.7 yards per play. With seven losses, the Cardinal are out of bowl contention, while Cal still has a faint shot at bowl eligibility. Cal should bounce back after their Covid struggles and win their fourth game of the season. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

That makes two losing weeks in a row. We'll try to close the regular season strong. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Editor's Note: I made a change to the picks after posting this on Wednesday. I took Hawaii +3 off and added UCF +7. We'll see if my change of heart made any difference. 

Last Week: 2-5
Overall 37-33

Wyoming +14 Boise State 
Wyoming finally broke their four-game losing streak last week against Colorado State, and in the process scored nearly as many points in one game (31) as they had during the first half of conference play (38). The victory does not mean the offense is fixed, but with winnable games against Utah State and Hawaii to come, it should mean the Cowboys are bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive (excluding the pandemic shortened) season. That would be quite an accomplishment for Wyoming, but I think it is still fair to question if they have reached their ceiling under Craig Bohl. For all the wins the Cowboys have under Bohl, they have pretty much wasted a very good Group of Five defense for the past half decade by not being able to put a good offense on the field. The Cowboys have not had an average or better Mountain West offense since 2016 when Josh Allen fell in their lap. If it takes a generational quarterback prospect to make your offense go, there is probably something fundamentally wrong. And don't forget, the offense cratered in Allen's final year in Laramie (2017), so it would seem when they get a generational talent, they are about a 50/50 proposition to be good on offense. Despite their offensive struggles, Wyoming has been a good play as a double digit road underdog under Bohl. While they are a mediocre 9-8 ATS overall as a double digit road underdog, they are 7-4 ATS in the role against Group of Five teams with the majority of their struggles coming when they faced Power Five teams. They are also 5-2 ATS against Boise State under Bohl, winning just once outright, but routinely keeping the game within the number, especially on the Smurf Turf where they are 3-0 ATS. Boise State is coming off a road upset of Fresno State where they Bulldogs turned the ball over three times. That result has inflated this line a bit (it should be closer to ten points), so grab up the value with the Cowboys. 

East Carolina +5.5 Memphis
Mike Houston's third East Carolina team appeared to be well on their way to another losing season on the evening of September 18th. They opened the year with a two touchdown loss to Appalachian State in the undercard to Clemson/Georgia, then lost a tight home game to South Carolina, and found themselves down 17 points to at Marshall. An 0-3 start was looking them right in the non-patched eye. Then the Pirates rattled off 21 straight points aided by an onside kick recovery and upset the Thundering Herd. They followed that up by barely beating Charleston Southern, but once conference play began, the Pirates have been strong. They are 3-2 in AAC play with each of their victories coming by at least fifteen points and both losses coming by a touchdown or less, including one in overtime. This is the best East Carolina team in seven years and they may be able to put a scare in Cincinnati when the Bearcats visit over Thanksgiving weekend. They have also done well for bettors in this role, posting an 8-3 ATS mark as a road underdog. That would seem to be a perfect fit against a Memphis team that has struggled mightily as a favorite under Ryan Silverfield. The Tigers are 1-4 ATS as a home favorite under Silverfield and are 1-7 ATS as a favorite in any venue. This East Carolina team is sneaky good and might be able to pull off the outright upset against an inconsistent Memphis team. 

Central Florida +7 SMU
Sonny Dykes has been a college football head coach for twelve seasons. He spent three seasons at Louisiana Tech (2010-2012), four at Cal (2013-2016) and he is currently in his fifth season at SMU (2017-present). Like his father before him, Dykes has been a pretty successful coach, guiding all three programs to bowl appearances and breaking into the AP Poll a combined five times (including three seasons in a row at SMU). However, none of his programs have ever finished ranked, primarily because they struggle in November. Across his twelve seasons, his teams are 18-26 straight up in November. Lest you think this is the product of his teams facing stiffer competition in November, they are also 15-29 ATS in (6-12 ATS as a favorite and 9-17 ATS as an underdog). And if you haven't been by a calendar lately, it just happens to be November. The Mustangs already lost last week in their first November game (as a favorite I might add) and now they face a Central Florida squad that has quietly won three straight (and played really good defense) after an evisceration at Cincinnati. SMU's hopes for an AAC title are infinitesimal, I think they drop their third in a row on Saturday. 

UAB +4.5 Marshall
This is a rematch of the 2020 Conference USA Championship Game and a potential preview of the 2021 edition. Marshall is currently tied atop the East division of CUSA and while UAB trails UTSA by a game, they actually control their own destiny and would clinch their fourth consecutive title game appearance if they win out. The number here is very similar to last year's when UAB travelled to Marshall as about a four and a half to five point underdog. The Blazers shut Marshall out in the first half en route to a 22-13 victory. Since Bill Clark arrived in Birmingham in 2014, the Blazers have been one of the safest bets in the nation when catching points on the road against fellow Group of Five teams. They are 9-3 ATS with eight outright wins. Yes, they have won two thirds of their games as a road underdog against Group of Five teams! The Blazers dropped a home game to Rice three weeks ago that threw folks off the scent of how good they are, but that loss featured your usual suspects (missed field goal, turnover on downs, fumble deep in their own territory, etc.). Otherwise, the Blazers have been downright dominant against CUSA teams, allowing under four yards per play to their conference foes. Marshall is going to have to score a lot of points to beat the Blazers and cover this number. Since Bill Clark arrived, the Blazers are 30-4 in CUSA games when they hold their opponent under 30 points and 2-8 when they do not. Marshall hung 49 and 38 on the rotting corpses of North Texas and Florida International, but UAB is a on a different level. Take the Blazers and don't be surprised if they win outright. 

Minnesota +5.5 Iowa
Take a look at the Big 10 West standings. Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin are all tied atop the division with identical 4-2 record. The Badgers are in the driver's seat as they own wins against Iowa and Purdue, and while they have looked especially dominant the past three weeks, there are some challenges remaining on the schedule (Nebraska and Minnesota respectively), so this race is far from over. The loser of this game will be pretty much eliminated from contention, but the winner can harbor dreams of getting pounded by Ohio State in Indianapolis. Both these teams have had weird seasons. Iowa rose as high as number two in the polls before dropping consecutive games to Purdue and Wisconsin by a combined 37 points. The Hawkeyes won last week against Northwestern, but still struggled offensively in a 17-12 victory. Meanwhile, Minnesota has dropped three home games for the first time since 2017 (PJ Fleck's first season), including two where they entered as double digit favorites. Meanwhile, they are unbeaten away from Minneapolis, with two outright wins as an underdog. After allowing 45 points and over ten yards per play to Ohio State in their opener, Minnesota has allowed just 15 points per game and 4.6 yards per play since. Both those numbers would be cause for celebration for the Iowa offense. After scoring a turnover fueled 85 points in their first two conference games against Indiana and Maryland, the Hawkeyes have scored 54 total points in their past four Big 10 games. Iowa's defense is good enough to win this game, but unless they force a ton of turnovers, their offense not good enough to cover this number. 

UTEP -1 North Texas
The bloom has come off the rose in El Paso the past two weeks as the Miners have dropped consecutive games after opening the year 6-1.  Despite the setbacks, they have a chance to get to nine (though more likely eight) regular season wins. UTEP has not won eight games in a season since 2005. They will probably end the season without a single victory against a team with a winning record, but this is progress for a program that won two total games between 2017 and 2019. While the Miners appear to be on their way up, North Texas is looking at their third consecutive losing season. The Mean Green have won two in a row to get back to respectability, but those victories have come against Rice and Southern Miss (combined for two FBS wins between them). Give North Texas credit for winning those games, but this team is still bad. If UTEP has proven anything in 2021, its they can beat bad teams. Every team they have lost to is headed to a bowl games (Boise State, FAU, and UTSA), while all six of their wins have come against teams that will not be going to the postseason. I know it can be scary laying points with UTEP, but all the Miners have to do to cover this number is win. North Texas won twelve of their first sixteen home conference games under Seth Littrell, but they are just 1-4 in their past five. Look for that trend to continue as UTEP wins their seventh game. 

Texas A&M -2.5 Ole Miss
Will the SEC Championship Game feature Texas A&M for the first time? That statement is not necessarily as far fetched as it may have appeared when Texas A&M dropped their first two conference games and was a big underdog to Alabama in their third. The Aggies upset Alabama and have won three in a row since. If they can win on the road against Ole Miss and LSU, all they would need is an Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl to punch their ticket to Atlanta. The Aggies should be able to run through an Ole Miss defense that is allowing over five yards per carry once sack yardage is removed. In fact, despite their 3-2 SEC record, Ole Miss is slightly underwater in terms of yards per play in conference games (-.08 yards per play). Plus, Texas A&M has the best per play defense in the SEC outside of Athens, so they should be able to partially contain the dynamic Ole Miss attack. Also, keep in mind Lane Kiffin's college teams are 1-8 ATS as a home underdog. I know that number is shocking, but catching points at home is something that is quite rare under Kiffin. Tennessee was never a home underdog in his lone season in Knoxville, Southern Cal was 0-4 in such games, FAU was 0-2, and Ole Miss is 1-2. Laying points on the road always gives me pause, but Texas A&M is the more complete team. 

Thursday, November 04, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week X

Regression finally came for me. Hopefully we can get back in the groove and bounce back this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall 35-28

Georgia Tech +10.5 Miami
This is the exact spot where you want to fade Miami. The Hurricanes have won two straight games as an underdog and are heading home to take on a team that is likely to finish with a losing record for the third consecutive season. The Hurricanes, especially quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, have played well the past two weeks, but lost in the afterglow of those two upset victories is the fact the defense has taken a noticeable step back. The Hurricanes have allowed 64 total points to NC State and Pittsburgh and if we go back further, they have allowed at least 30 points to every ACC and Power Five opponent. In fact, by yards per play in ACC games, their defense is the fourth worst in the conference (ahead of Boston College, Virginia, and Duke). Georgia Tech's defense is not appreciably better (fifth worst in yards per play in ACC games), but the Yellow Jackets have their best offense under Geoff Collins. Clemson's strong defense held them down, but in their other five ACC games, they are averaging nearly 31 points per game and 6.8 yards per play. Miami's defense is not good enough to be laying double digits against a competent offense. Plus, the Hurricanes are just 4-9 ATS as a home favorite under Manny Diaz and just 3-7 ATS as a double-digit favorite at any venue. Take the Yellow Jackets to cover this inflated number. 

Louisiana-Monroe +3.5 Texas State
I was on Louisiana-Monroe last week when the Warhawks were catching four touchdowns at Appalachian State. Despite falling way behind, they did not quit and nearly got in the backdoor, but fumbled on the one-yard line while down 31. I suppose I can't complain too much for backing a team that was behind by 42 points at the half, but it was still a bad beat in my book. I am a glutton for punishment, so naturally, I am back on them this week. The competition is significantly weaker, and for all their struggles, Louisiana-Monroe still has an outside shot at bowl eligibility. The Warhawks need to win two of their final four games to get there, but they probably need to win their next two. They close with games against in-state competition (LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette), so winning either of those would require a much larger upset. Can you tell me why Texas State is favored in this spot? The Bobcats are 7-25 under current head coach Jake Spavital who is likely to be fired (perhaps immediately following this game) before the 2022 season. His record is certainly one reason to dismiss him, but another is an odd recruiting choice he made in the offseason. Texas State did not sign any high school recruits and elected to utilize the transfer portal only. We'll give Spavital credit for using an unconventional tactic, but this scheme seemed hairbrained at best from the start. With few underclassmen to build with, how motivated will Texas State be on Saturday? Since many of the players may not be around next season, I think there is a good possibility they may check out down the stretch. Texas State has to sweep their final four games to attain bowl eligibility, and no matter how optimistic the coaches and players are, they have to know they are playing out the string like a bad baseball team in September. I think the Warhawks pull the slight upset and get their fifth win against a team that has not outscored any opponent by more than two points in regulation this season. 

Maryland +10 Penn State
Last week, going against Maryland was one of the few picks I got right (and it took a backdoor touchdown to get it done). I have spilled quite a bit of ink on this blog about how bad I think Mike Locksley is as a head coach. However, I think there is value on Maryland this week. Penn State's defense is elite, but their offense has been running on fumes since their FCS scrimmage against Villanova. The Nittany Lions have averaged 4.40 yards per play and 21.5 points per game in that span. Unsurprisingly, they are 1-3 over their past four games. Maryland does represent the worst Big 10 defense they will have played this season, but I'm not sure Penn State will be able to take full advantage of that deficiency. The Penn State defense should be able to contain Maryland's talented offense, but as long as Taulia Tagovailoa avoids the conglomeration of interceptions he threw against Iowa, Maryland should be able to keep this one close. I expect this to be an archetypal Big 10 game with both teams scoring in the teens or lower twenties. Under James Franklin, Penn State does have a history of pounding Maryland (a place he was the head coach in waiting many years ago), beating them by 24, 63, 35, and 59 respectively between 2016 and 2019. However, another trend points to the Terps. Losses to Ohio State seem to take a lot out of Penn State. Between 2017 and 2020, the Nittany Lions were 1-3 straight up and 0-4 ATS in the game immediately following Ohio State. And those games were not expected to be close. Penn State was favored by at least a touchdown in all four and by double digits in three of them. The Nittany Lions have nothing to play for and are traveling to Maryland between an Ohio State/Michigan sandwich. Take the Terps in this great spot.  

Auburn +4.5 Texas A&M
Is it time to start asking whether Auburn under anti-vax head coach Bryan Harsin is the second best team in the SEC West? I think it might be. Look at the teams that have beaten the Tigers. Georgia is the consensus number one team by both the humans and the computers and while Penn State has fallen on hard times recently, they beat the Tigers when they were fully healthy. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is getting a lot of love from the betting markets for beating Alabama, although it seems the College Football Playoff Selection Committee has forgotten about that loss, but they have played a pair of scrimmages since that monumental upset. The Aggies have beaten Missouri, owner of perhaps the worst run defense in modern SEC history, and a South Carolina team starting a graduate assistant at quarterback. I know this is a dangerous exercise, but if we ignore those two games, the Aggies have been outgained by about 0.60 yards per play in their other three SEC games (6.21 to 5.61). Are we really sure Zach Calzada is going to cover more than a field goal against a surging Auburn? I have my doubts. After the reprieve of facing Missouri and South Carolina, the Aggies face two ranked teams down the stretch (Auburn and Ole Miss) as well as a tricky finale on the road against LSU. Since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012, the underdog is 5-4 straight up and 6-2-1 ATS in this series. Plus Texas A&M has not beaten Auburn in College Station as an SEC team. Look for that trend to continue with Auburn springing the upset. 

Mississippi State +4.5 Arkansas
I think a portion of this number can be traced to last year's result. The residue of that upset is still in the market. Let me set the scene for you. Mississippi State was ranked sixteenth in the country and fresh off a beating of the reigning national champs. The Bulldogs were hosting Arkansas, a team led by an unknown first year head coach that had lost twenty straight SEC games. Mississippi State outgained Arkansas by over 100 yards, but committed four turnovers, including an interception that Arkansas returned for a touchdown that provided the winning margin in a 21-14 upset. After the upset win, Arkansas was more competitive in SEC play, but only won two additional games. They opened 2021 with four consecutive wins, including upsets against former Southwest Conference rivals Texas and Texas A&M. However, the schedule stiffened and the Razorbacks have only beaten Arkansas Pine-Bluff since the calendar flipped to October. Mississippi State struggled after the loss to Arkansas, scoring sixteen total points over their next three games. The team improved later in the year as freshman quarterback Will Rogers gained experience in the the Air Raid. That improvement has continued in 2021. Outside of a poor showing against Alabama, Rogers has thrown multiple touchdowns in every game but one and is completing over 75% of his passes. Arkansas won last year's game against a team implementing a brand new offense over a volatile, pandemic impacted offseason. That will not be the case in this matchup. Plus, the Razorbacks are in a relatively unfamiliar position. Between 2017 and 2021, they were underdogs in 35 consecutive conference games. They finally broke that streak last month when they were favored by four and a half points against Auburn. They lost. Arkansas is a team you want to back in the underdog role (10-4 ATS under Sam Pittman), but they have not been favored enough to recommend backing them in that spot. This line should be closer to a field goal, so grab the extra value with Mississippi State. 

Florida Atlantic +1.5 Marshall
Conference USA has an intriguing race in the East division that is set to play out over the course of November. We'll ignore Middle Tennessee State for the moment since they are probably not very good (despite their victory against Marshall), but Florida Atlantic, Marshall, and Western Kentucky will stage a round robin tournament over the next month that will go most of the way toward determining the division champ. Round one commences Saturday in Boca Raton. The Owls and Thundering Herd have combined for ten wins this season, but they have feasted on bad competition. Florida Atlantic has beaten four FBS teams that have combined for a 13-19 record, with UTEP representing their best win. Likewise, Marshall has four FBS victories. The four teams they have beaten have combined for a 7-25 record, with their season-opening victory against an improving Navy team (that is still just 2-6) likely representing their best win. I expected a tight line when perusing these spreads, but I think the wrong team is favored. Florida Atlantic is unbeaten at home under Willie Taggart, and has not lost in Boca since Marshall beat them there in 2019 (won eleven in a row). I expect the Owls to get a leg (or wing) up in the conference race on Saturday. 

Washington +7 Oregon
Despite a disappointing season that has included a home loss to Montana, Washington still has a chance to win the Pac-12 North. If they manage to upset the Ducks in Seattle (and assuming Oregon State wins at Colorado), the division would have four teams tied atop the standings with identical 4-2 records. The question is, do they have the goods to beat the Ducks? The Huskies have won four of six since their 0-2 start, with both losses in that span coming by a touchdown or less. The defense has remained one of the best in the Pac-12, holding conference opponents to just a shade over five yards per play. Unfortunately, the offense has been neutered, never scoring more than 24 points in regulation in conference play. If the Ducks get out to a big lead, you can toss this ticket in the trash. Washington will not be able to stage a rally. However, I don't think Oregon will be able to get out to a big lead. In their five conference games to date, the Ducks have trailed at the half in two of them and led by three in another. They did hold multi-score leads against Arizona (+14) and Colorado (+17), but I'll pause and let you check the Pac-12 standings to see where those two teams are. Against the competent teams they have played thus far, the games have been tight. And while Washington is not the national contender they were thought to be in the preseason, they are competent. Washington has not been this large a home underdog since 2014 during the first season of the Chris Petersen era. Washington will keep this one close and may end the Pac-12's playoff hopes before mid-November.